Graduate programs nationwide experienced dramatic drops in enrolment among international students in the fall of 2020, especially at the master’s level, according to data from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) International Graduate Applications and Enrolment: Fall 2020 report.
The CGS estimate is focused on information submitted by 326 U.S. universities and colleges. Sixty-nine per cent of the reporting institutions were public universities, and 65 per cent were PhD universities.
Overall, the number of first-time international enrolments decreased by 39% across masters and doctoral programmes. At the Master’s level, the numbers were down 43% compared to the fall of the 2019 intake. International doctoral program start-ups have decreased by 26%.
Graduate enrolment decreases were especially noticeable among students from Asia (-47%) and the Middle East and North Africa (-36 per cent).
However, the decline in enrolment does not reflect the lack of demand for US Masters and PhD programmes. New CGS data shows that international applications increased by 3% over 2019 – building on a similar increase in the previous year. Under normal circumstances, the growth in graduate applications would almost certainly have boosted the start of the fall of 2020.
However, the pandemic changed the plans of many international students who were admitted to graduate and postgraduate studies in the fall of 2020, as suggested by the discrepancy between applications and enrolments.
Graduate enrolment trends are consistent with those found across all higher education levels in the US, including undergraduate, community college, and OPT. A separate IIE study found a 43 per cent year-over-year decline in international beginnings in the fall of 2020 across the range of institutions and levels.
Both Enrollment of Chinese and Indian Students drops
Chinese and Indian students attributed 70 per cent of the total international applications for graduate programs in the fall of 2020. Unfortunately, these students represent a large proportion of international students who did not start their plans in the fall of 2020. Compared to 2019, 37% fewer Chinese students and 66% fewer Indian students began to graduate and post-graduate studies in the US in the fall of 2020.
Indian students are much more likely to apply for and enrol in U.S. Master’s programs than in post-graduate programs. Therefore, the decline in Indian student numbers has played a significant role in the overall decrease in master’s international start-ups. Indian students also delayed their start dates more than Chinese students (21 per cent vs 6 per cent, respectively).
The number of Chinese and Indian graduates is troubling, given how dependent US graduate schools are in these markets. In the fall of 2019, China and India accounted for 63% of all first-time international graduate students enrolled in US institutions.
CGS conducted two additional surveys between Graduate School Admission Officers in 2020 to gage the extent to which deferrals (i.e. students choosing to delay their start dates by a semester or more) influenced lower enrolment among international students.
Over 80 per cent of respondents said that deferrals were up among newly admitted international graduate students compared to previous years. More than half said that deferrals had increased by more than 5 per cent. Twelve per cent of deferrals occurred at the master’s level, and 10 per cent were at the doctoral level.
Several other institutions have been particularly affected by delays. Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, Dean of the Graduate College at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told Nature.com that international student deferrals were “ballooned to more than 2,000—twenty times the usual number” in the fall of 2020.
Mr Chodzko-Zajko also suggests that deferrals create enormous uncertainty about future planning, saying that if all the students who deferred assumed their following intake positions, he was not sure how his institution could handle the inflow.
In writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Karin Fischer points out that international master’s degree students may have been particularly likely to defer, given that their programs are relatively short compared to PhDs. As a result, these students might have opted to wait in the hope that doing so would increase the chances of having more or all of their programs delivered in person as soon as the pandemic restrictions eased. That would have made the start date of fall 2020 less likely.
Another likely reason for start-ups falling less steeply at the post-graduate level is that international PhD students would have faced fewer COVID-related hurdles before starting their programs in the US in 2020. Hironao Okahana, CGS Vice President for Research and Knowledge Development, told Ms Fisher that, unlike master’s students, many doctoral students would already have been in the U.S. on a visa to study at a different academic level when COVID-related travel restrictions were imposed.
One in five international graduate students in the US is an international student – and this rises to more than half in some science and engineering programmes. A 2017 report by the National Foundation for American Policy Research Organization found that about 8 out of 10 graduate students in computer science programs and electrical and petroleum engineering programs were international students.
In a statement, CGS President Suzanne Ortega said that the decline in enrolment in the fall of 2020 is worrying but not entirely surprising:
“The decline in international graduate enrolment is alarming because it undermines the global diversity and vitality of US graduate programs. Between the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly on health concerns and international travel, and the lack of consistent and timely direction from the Trump administration regarding international graduate student visa policy, we were prepared to see declines.
“Although the declines are concerning, we know our members have prioritised staying connected to both the students who deferred and their existing international graduate student community.”
At the very least, US educators now know that international demand for face-to-face graduate programs on their campuses is growing, as evidenced by increased applications for the fall of 2020. The challenge will be to wait for the pandemic restrictions to be lifted – and then to be able to absorb the demand when they exist.